Colleges are increasingly treated as a consumer product, and to attract the consumer—i.e., students who will pay $60,000 in tuition yearly—they often strive to cultivate a cohesive, positive brand image. Northwestern University’s recent censorship of a faculty-produced bioethics journal issue about sex and disability is a timely example of universities being overly concerned with their public image and brand.
Colleges not only preen controversial publications but also often establish policies that curtail conversation of difficult-to-discuss issues such as mental health. Awareness of mental health issues is especially important for students to understand, as, according to a study by the American College Health Association, “nearly one in six college students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety within the last 12 months.” Understanding how colleges both intentionally and unintentionally limit dialogue about mental health is a critical first step to combating the trend of silencing sufferers of mental illnesses.
Between August 2013 and September 2014, there were six student suicides at my school, the University of Pennsylvania. While all these incidents were equally upsetting, Sarah Smith’s senior column for The Daily Pennsylvanian (DP) regarding her coverage of the latest suicide at Penn added another layer of trouble to the case. According to her, the administration accused the DP of being “irresponsible in printing what actually happened to the student. [The DP] could even trigger our fellow students to kill themselves — did we really want that on our conscience? Because, the administrator told us, swiveling back and forth on a maroon desk chair, it would be.”
This guilt trip intended to quiet student speech is particularly antithetical at a university that commits itself to “the right to freedom of thought and expression.” It is especially reproachful when one of the most commonly recommended approaches to dealing with mental health is to avoid stigmatization and instead discuss it openly. For example, the National Alliance on Mental Health maintains a blog entitled “You Are Not Alone” that encourages people to share their stories about mental illness to garner support. Chilling student speech about mental health in public forums for fear of being accused of causing additional mental health episodes limits potential productive dialogue about the serious disorders and diseases that may lead to suicide.
What I found particularly egregious about the administration’s response to Amanda Hu’s death was its refusal to directly recognize her passing. Instead, all undergraduates received, at seemingly random intervals, an email about the “very extensive network of support services on campus” without any recognition of the suicide itself. President Amy Gutmann contended that “parents often do not want their children’s names released” after such events. That justification is certainly reasonable, but in the wake of numerous high-profile mental health crises at the university, the community (myself included) saw it as important for Penn to demonstrate sympathy rather than solely promote their services without context.
The University of Pennsylvania’s response to this student suicide mirrors other schools’ tendency to censor difficult-to-discuss issues that could tarnish the reputation of universities. Fairmont State University in West Virginia is facing criticism from many media outlets for allegedly attempting to censor its student newspaper’s reporting of black mold in one of the dorms for fear that it could hurt the university’s brand, even though its student handbook says that students have rights and responsibilities consistent with First Amendment protections, including the right “to have a free and independent student press which adheres to the canons of responsible journalism.” A high-profile FIRE case at the University of Alaska Fairbanks documented the student newspaper’s fight against a faculty member who filed a sexual harassment complaint (along with a separate sexual harassment complaint) after the paper ran an investigative report of a student-run Facebook “Confessions” page. Universities are concerned with their reputations to the point that they are willing to abridge basic First Amendment protections. Indeed, it would be more beneficial for universities to acknowledge and address student concerns because suppressing discussion of the problems will not make them go away.
Unfortunately for these institutions, attempted censorship only hurts their brand image, as it makes universities seem unable to deal with criticism. Editorial pressure, like that applied to the Daily Pennsylvanian, directly contradicts the student body’s desire for transparency, openness, and support from their leaders. The rising Class of 2019 at Penn has already created a “Mental Health Helpers” group as a forum where students can reach out to peers for support. Trying to censor the reporting of tough issues such as mental health will only further isolate students and cast universities in a negative light in the eyes of prospective students.
Evan Cernea is a FIRE summer intern.